This article discusses the life and work of Heinrich Wilhelm Stiegel, noting his experiences working in the iron business, his switch to glass, and his eventual bankruptcy. It originally appeared in the November 1937 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antiques collectors and dealers.
The average collector is apt to think of Stiegel only in connection with his glass and the apocryphal stories about him. Bar-iron, pots, kettles and cast-iron apparatus for sugar-refining, window-panes, common bottles and cast-iron stove plates and stoves, even when decorated, do not appeal to the imagination like fine flip-glasses embellished with etched or enamelled devices, wine-glasses of graceful contour, or sugar bowls and cream-pitchers of deep toned blue.
Iron is a cumbersome thing to collect. And yet, on the aforementioned utilities, to the manufacture of which Stiegel devoted the greater part of his career, was his prosperity built. His fine glass making was an enterprise that occupied only a comparatively few years at the end of his active career and proved the rock of his shipwreck, a misfortune that ultimately sent him to his grave, a broken, prematurely old man.
At the end of August, 1750, Heinrich Wilhelm Stiegel, a personable young Palatine, disembarked at Philadelphia from the ship Nancy. Born in Cologne May 3, 1729, he had sailed for Pennsylvania with his widowed mother and his younger brother Anthony, age eleven. That he was not a baron and that he did not bring with him an inheritance of £40,000 has been proved beyond doubt by Frederick William Hunter in his book, Stiegel Glass. That Stiegel later allowed himself to be called “baron” without contradiction was merely helpless acquiescence in a popularly-bestowed epithet. Also had he arrived with the sizable capital claimed, he would have fallen into some promising and attractive mercantile venture in Philadelphia, were opportunities for profitable investment were not wanting, instead of setting forth into the interior to carve out a fortune through pioneer industry.
After subscribing the declaration required of all male immigrants from the Palatinate above 16 years of age, he completely disappeared from the Philadelphia scene for some years. He was next heard of in Lancaster County in 1752, where so many of his fellow-countrymen from the Rhineland had settled and were prospering. In that year he married Elizabeth Huber, daughter of Jacob Huber, an ironmaster. Thereafter Stiegel kept closely in touch with his father-in-law’s establishment at what was later named Elizabeth Furnace, near Brickerville, a village not far from Lancaster.
At some time during the four years following his marriage he formed a partnership with Charles and Alexander Stedman of Philadelphia and one John Barr. The records show that in September, 1756, Stiegel and his partners took over joint operation of Huber’s furnace with Stiegel in charge as the active managing member. At first they apparently leased the furnace, for the bill of sale bears the date of May 1, 1758. It conveyed to the partners 400 acres of land, with furnace and buildings of Jacob Huber, “now actually in possession of Chas. Stedman, Alex Stedman, John Barr and Henry W. Stiegel.” Barr shortly afterward sold his interest to the other partners, and nothing more is heard of him.
The purchase of Elizabeth Furnace (it got its name about this time) was followed by extensive acquisitions of land. During 1758 and 1759, these actual purchases, together with applications for warrants to unpatented lands, amounted to thousands of acres. Stiegel’s inventory shows a total of nearly 7,000 acres adjacent to the furnace, along with other joint holdings in the township amounting to nearly 4,000 acres more. In 1760 he acquired another iron property near Wömelsdorf, at no great distance from Elizabeth Furnace. Soon he had over 3,000 acres there.
This property was named Charming Forge. In 1762, the Stedmans bought the tract of land in Manheim Township, where they and Stiegel subsequently established the village of Manheim. Both properties were promptly included in the joint ownership. These wide land investments may have been unwise when considered in the light of after events, but Stiegel, though blessed with vision and imagination essential to successful enterprise, had not the gift of prophecy. He could not forsee the political happenings that were to swamp the Colonies in economic disaster during the years immediately preceding the Revolution.
With an apparently fair sky and the iron business thriving, his venture is perfectly understandable. It was precisely like the land speculations of many of his contemporaries, who by these means founded fortunes for themselves and their heirs “unto the third and fourth generation” and won the plaudits of posterity by so doing. They were luckier than Stiegel in having got to cover before the storm broke or in making their ventures after it was over. Stiegel was caught unprepared and was unable to liquidate his assets.
Elizabeth Huber died in February, 1758. In October of the same year the young widower with two small daughters married Elizabeth Hölz, sister-in-law to George Michael Ege, a well-to-do Philadelphian of some note. The following January Ege died and the Stiegels persuaded his widow and her two young sons to come and live with them at Elizabeth Furnace. The house shown in the illustration must have been standing by this time. The original Huber house could not have held a family of seven decently, even with the compact sleeping arrangements common in the 18th Century.
This new master’s house was well built and comfortable, but no larger or more pretentious than many a farmhouse built in this region about the same time. It was not nearly so imposing as many other master’s houses of the same period or before. Stiegel, it is true, seemed always to have a taste for good furniture and fine clothes. One of his inventories, which he was fond of making, shows, furniture to the value of more than £400; clothing to the value of more than £200 and musical instruments (he was an accomplished musician) to the value of nearly £300.
Cormpared with the personal equipment of well-to-do contemporaries, these were high values and might indicate an inclination to extravagance. However, prosperous ironmasters, from his day to our own, have been equally extravagant without drawing down on their heads the obloquy of popular censure or giving rise to preposterous legends. To say that Stiegel at this time indulged in baronial splendour is absurd. To live baronially one must have a baronial setting.
By constant industry, Stiegel soon built up a prosperous iron business. The old account books show that the returns from Elizabeth Furnace and Charming Forge were substantial and encouraging. The product of the latter was chiefly bar iron, sold at a good profit. At Elizabeth Furnace, Stiegel specialized in putting forth improved heating devices for which there was good demand. He improved Franklin’s open-hearth stove. Legend has credited him with the invention of the “five-plate” or jamb stove. Actually, it had been made for years in Germany and, even in Pennsylvania, had been cast before he was born.
But he made good “five-plate” stoves and let his advertising instinct have play by casting his name or that of Elizabeth Furnace in place of scriptural texts or scenes that had once been so popular. He improved the “six-plate” or free-standing stove, and also cast “ten-plate” stoves and “cannon” stoves, the latter so called because of their cylindrical bodies. He likewise cast considerable quantities of sugar-refining apparatus for sale to the West Indies.
An advertisement in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1769 shows the diversity of products and extent of business at Elizabeth Furnace:
“IRON CASTINGS Of all dimensions and sizes, such as kettles or boilers for pot-ash works, soap-boilers, pans pots, from a barrel to 300 gallons, ship cabooses, kachels, and sugar house stoves, with cast funnels of any height for refining sugars weights of all sizes, grate bars and other castings for sugar works in the West Indies, etc. are all carefully done by Henry etc., Stiegel, iron-master, at Elizabeth Furnace in Lancaster County, on the most reasonable terms. Orders and applications made to Michael Hillegas in Second Street, Philadelphia, will be carefully forwarded…”
Stiegel was an industrialist manufacturing for industrial needs. With as keen an appreciation of the value of advertising and as ready an eye for business as the most modern “go-getter,” he was not slow to see an opportunity for profit in making glass to supply Colonial needs. In 1763 he started glassmaking at Elizabeth Furnace, and for the next few years produced a considerable quantity of bottles and window glass of various sizes that all sold in an encouraging manner.
Then the obsession for making fine glass seems to have seized him. Was it an ambition cherished from his boyhood days in Cologne or was it fresh inspiration? At any rate, Stiegel and the Stedmans now started to lay out the town of Manheim. They offered a certain number of building lots to desirable purchasers, and at one end of the market place (Manheim was planned like a small German town) Stiegel started-to build himself an imposing house.
In 1764 his records show that he began building a glasshouse. The glass-workers were to occupy houses close to the factory. Stiegel and his partners thus undertook a proprietary land development and town planning enterprise, even to the extent of brewing and tavern-keeping. It antedated the modern idea of town planning by more than a century.
The Manheim glass factory had no more than got fairly started when the pre-Revolutionary depression began to impose formidable obstacles. Blinded to the ominous signs of the times by his enthusiasm for his new enterprises, he pushed ahead heedlessly. The capacity of the first glasshouse did not satisfy him, so he built a second and larger one, and added to his staff the most expert workers he could muster from England and the Continent. Late in 1769 or early in 1770 the second glasshouse went into operation, and it was here that most of his finest things were made.
From this period of reckless fighting to stem the rising tide of adversity sprang the tales of extravagance and baronial splendor. The big house at the end of the market place was no bigger than many another of the time, but big enough to start fabulous reports in the mouths of the surrounding peasantry who knew that the “baron” was in financial difficulties. His eccentricities, the brass cannon fired from the roof, his fine clothes, the coach and four, the concerts given by musical members of his staff, were all maliciously exploited.
Business became worse and worse, collections became impossible, importunate creditors with judgments could no longer be staved off. Adjudged a bankrupt, he was obliged to give up everything. At the end of November, 1774, he was thrown into the debtor’s gaol and released only after the Governor and Provincial Council obtained a private Act of Assembly.
Poverty and obscurity marked the rest of his life. For a time he acted as caretaker at Elizabeth Furnace; for a time he lived rent free in the Lutheran parsonage at Manheim. Finally, he lived on the charity of his brother and nephew at Schaefferstown and Charming Forge, earning what he could by teaching school and giving music lessons. He died in 1785 at the age of 56, a heart-broken man.
It would take more space than is here available to discuss, even superficially, the many fine qualities of Stiegel glass and the manner of its making. Suffice it to say that in the very teeth of disaster he succeeded in putting forth a beautiful product of which America may well be proud. Further, more attention should be paid to the products of his iron industry. That he was no mere fatuous visionary but a shrewd, energetic business man his earlier career as ironmaster abundantly proves.
His contemporaries adjudged him a failure and an object of scorn. They forgot his contribution to the industrial development and prosperity of the Province; forgot his contribution to domestic comfort through his improvements in heating devices; and remembered only his folly in letting his enthusiasm betray him into business expansion at the wrong time. But viewed from this distance, his failure was his crowning success. Unless he had kept on in the face of all obstacles, he would probably never have produced his best glass. It was then or not at all. For too long after the Revolutionary War conditions were not propitious for such an undertaking.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Stiegel’s own version of his financial difficulties and his belief that he could effect a rehabilitation of his affairs are contained in an unpublished letter, dated Manheim, September 5, 1774, reproduced by courtesy of Arthur Sussel of Philadelphia. It indicates that Stiegel’s difficulties are not with the merchants and financiers of Philadelphia, who are disposed to give him time enough to meet his obligations from the profits of his glass factory, but with his Lancaster County creditors.
Written to Jasper Yates, evidently a lawyer of Lancaster, less than two months before Stiegel was thrown into the debtor’s gaol, he states that his industries represent an investment of £150,000 and that his glass factory can produce £5,000 worth of glass yearly. His plea for time is both courageous and pathetic. The letter, with his eratic use of capital letters, but put in paragraphs for ease in reading, is as follows:
To Jasper Yates, Esq. via Express Lancaster
Sir: I have received Advice from Philadelphia from Mr. Jesse Cox that you were ordered by him to Renew the Execution for my furniture. He Desires you will inform and Stop any Proceedings contra to take the Advantage of him. Mr. Ferris (?) having levied since on the same at the Suit of Daniel Benezet and Advertised sale as I am just sending an Express to Philadelphia you will let me know.
I have further the pleasure to Acquaint you that Mr. Cox is quite in my favor and has no other Design but to Encourage me, provided my other Creditors will be generous and wait. My Creditors at Philadelphia are all satisfied to give me time enough vz Do the some. Now I hope that them in our own County (where I have been such an Encourager so as to benefit it for £150000 by Carrying on manufactories which was all rose out of the ground) will be the same.
I want nothing but Time and Encouragement and I can raise more for them, if they will but let me, out of my Glass factory, which is able to make £5000 Value of Glass per Annum now, and compleated. Let them wait give me Time and act as men and Christians with me. I Desire you will speak to Messers, Finger and Stone, to let me know what payments they will give me, if I give them such surety (?) as I can. As to money it is impossible for me to raise it as this alarm has stopt all my Channels and if I can’t get matters on such a footing as to raise my Credit again which is Entirely Knocked Down, I must and am resolved to Give up.
I made a good proposal to Mr. Michael and would Do any thing but he Don’t want to give him Self any Trouble though I want to secure him and as Mr. Bidle is my friend should get credits (?) against me settled also.
The rest I am Confident would come into any measures to encourage me to go on, if those are once settled, but if I can’t obtain that they must take their Chances.
As soon as Mrs. Stiegel comes home I Desire you will pay us a Visit with Mrs. Yates as I want to Consult with you and then I shall acquaint you of our proceedings and my Situation on which I shall Desire your Kind advice and Satisfy you. Let me have your answer hereon as soon as possible and Excuse Haste.
Sir, Your most H’ble servant
Henry Wm. Stiegel.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.